The gruesome video of a beheading in Syria that surfaced on the Internet recently was shocking by any measure. But when people in Belgium and The Netherlands listened to the voices in the background, the terror hit home. The men brutally sawing through their victim’s throat were speaking Dutch, or perhaps the Belgian variant, Flemish, and sometimes switching to French. Suddenly, both Brussels and The Hague, while trying to gauge the authenticity of the footage, are starting to rethink the impact of the Syrian war on Europe.
“We want to know what the hell these guys are doing in Syria,” says Edwin Bakker, an expert on terrorism and counterterrorism at Leiden University and an advisor to the Dutch government. Bakker thinks the footage is genuine and says it is being taken very seriously. “We need to invest in good intelligence,” Bakker says. “We want to know what these guys are doing in Syria, who they’re with, and what they are like when they come back. Is it someone who has regrets, is disappointed? Or is it someone who has experienced many things, gained lots of knowledge, and we should watch him 24 hours a day and, if we can, should we arrest him?”
The Belgian newspaper De Morgen recently published excerpts from transcripts made by the Belgian security service, which was monitoring the radical Sharia4Belgium organization. In the phone calls made from Syria, members of the group describe brutalities committed in the fighting near the city of Aleppo. They claim to have raped and murdered. De Morgen makes a link between those conversations and this video or similar beheadings.
In recent months, law enforcement has been faced with the growing concern of young men heading to the Syrian front from northern European countries to fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Fighters from Britain, France, Belgium and The Netherlands (there are an estimated 150 to 200 young men from Belgium and The Netherlands alone) have been traveling to the battlefield in Syria to take arms alongside the Islamist rebels against the government troops. Some are from Muslim backgrounds, some are converts to Islam, but all are potentially dangerous because of the military skills they acquire and the shock of what they’ve experienced.
The young men involved in the Sharia4Belgium organization reportedly are commanded by 22-year-old Houssien Elouassaki, whose background is Moroccan but who comes from Vilvoorde, near Brussels. In the phone taps, the group talks of killing imagined enemies of the “true faith,” according to an extremist reading of the Sunni Islam. When Elouassaki talks to his brother in Belgium, he says: "Three days ago we were all allowed to cut someone’s throat.” “You shouldn’t do that,” his older brother, Abdelouafi, answered. "Ah, well, a Kalashnikov or a knife, what difference does it make? They are Shiite and Alawite, so they have to die."
Dutch war correspondent Hans-Jaap Melissen knows Syria and its conflict well. He just came back from the city of Aleppo, where he was searching for a young man who had converted to Islam. “I wonder if foreign jihadis are more inclined toward excesses because they want to prove themselves?” he says. “The rebels are very distrusting toward foreigners, you see. It could be just like joining the mob, where you have to kill someone in order to get in. Then, there is no way back.”
Melissen thinks the drive of the young jihadis to help the rebels in Syria is sincere but naïve. “I met a few of them quite a while ago. They were enormously religious. They came from the poor suburban neighborhoods around Paris and Toulouse in France and had backgrounds of petty criminality. They approached me saying, ‘We want to talk to you, because you need to convert to Islam.’ Otherwise, they thought I would be lost. They seemed quite naïve. They claimed they didn’t come to fight. Maybe they lied; maybe they simply didn’t know. In any case they said they had felt a calling to go to Syria.”
Detailed information about the young European men is often scarce. But according to De Morgen, the group of foreigners sometimes cooperates with the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra, a faction fighting against Assad, which is branded a terrorist organization by the United States and acknowledged by al Qaeda’s core leadership as its Syrian franchise.
Dutch media report the parents of some jihadis say their sons are given monthly pay and the use of a lush villa in Syria with a swimming pool supplied by a “Saudi benefactor.” Parents in The Hague even received a photo from their son with a bunch of Dutch “Syria fighters” posing at a poolside. These accounts are re-confirmed by the Belgian wiretapping transcripts from Elouassaki, who says: “There are beautiful houses here, there is a swimming pool, food, drinks, anything you want. If a bomb drops on your head, at least you die a martyr. What could be better than that?"
But the mundane reality is most likely much less hedonistic than that. The boys may get back to the pool, but not before they have seen violence. War correspondent Melissen thinks the stories are at least partly apocryphal: “An intelligence officer of the rebels told me a group of Dutch boys had been staying at a villa. They were sent through to the battle at Idlib though. These are temporary houses. They don’t stay there permanently. They are the best places to keep the western jihadis isolated from journalists and relatives. I wonder if they are even allowed to go out… It is not like they are staying at a five star hotel. There are swimming pools, but they are mostly empty.”
The Dutch parliament, in the meantime, is asking its Minister of Security and Justice Ivo Opstelten to start an investigation into the young people fighting in Syria. A majority of the government is in support of confiscating the passports of young people who intend to fight in Syria. VVD, the biggest party in Dutch government, is even in favor of stripping them of Dutch nationality.
Edwin Bakker doesn’t believe that would be a very effective policy. “To take someone’s passport without proof of a criminal act is legally too complex,” he says. “It could be interesting as a symbolic gesture but, to be honest, it doesn’t stop the phenomenon. We need to invest in good intelligence.”
Members of the Dutch government and terrorism experts say they are worried about the repercussions when the men, traumatized by war, arrive back to Dutch soil. “Worst case scenario is a reoccurrence of the events in France a little over a year ago, when someone like Mohammed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, comes back [from a war zone], decides to do something with relatively few means, like a handgun, and starts shooting at military men and Jewish citizens,” says Bakker.
He added that many men come back and nothing happens, “but a few will do something, an attack of sorts, or they come back completely disturbed. PTSD is very prevalent with people who spent time in warzones. And 11 percent to 12 percent of terrorist attackers have been trained for fighting abroad. One does learn something there, one radicalizes further and gathers connections. These are all very good reasons to keep a close eye on who comes back, and then decide what to do.”